Washington's cynical misinformation game

Commentary: distortion now a standard part of political discourse on health care

By

 Updated:

In most of our country’s major institutions, we have little tolerance for cheating and lying. Whether it’s the court system, schools, businesses, even our sports teams, we impose stiff sanctions against those who deceive us to gain some advantage.

If convicted of lying on the witness stand, you’ll pay a fine and possibly wind up in jail. If caught cheating on a test, you’ll probably fail the course or worse. At the University of Virginia, a breach of the school’s honor code “has but a single penalty: immediate expulsion from the university.” 

In 2009, Bank of America agreed to pay a $33 million fine after the SEC accused it of lying. Just last month, a federal judge ordered that same bank to pay a $1.27 billion fine after a jury found it liable for bad loans that were part of a “fraudulent and reckless” mortgage-lending program.

Some of our most famous athletes have been stripped of their medals and banned for life from participating on sports teams for doping and lying about it.

Our religions condemn such deception. In Proverbs we are told that “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who pours out lies” are among the seven things that the Lord hates and considers detestable.

Yet there is one arena in which misleading the public not only is abided but is the norm: politics. In fact, much of what constitutes political discourse in this country is now built on a foundation of dishonesty. One of the most effective — and perfectly legal — ways to win votes and influence public policy these days is to pour millions of dollars into deception-based campaigns designed to manipulate public opinion.

The most recent evidence: a National Journal article about a new tactic used by the National Republican Congressional Committee to attack Democratic candidates. Earlier this year, the NRCC created several fake Democratic candidate websites. The organization’s latest effort is a brand new set of deceptive websites, this time designed to look like local news sources.

The NRCC has created about two dozen “faux news sites,” the National Journal reported, all of which feature articles that “begin in the impartial voice of a political fact-checking site, hoping to lure in readers.” After a few such paragraphs, the articles “gradually morph into more biting language.” 

With no hint of irony, the NRCC’s communications director was quoted as saying, "This is a new and effective way to disseminate information to voters who are interested in learning the truth about these Democratic candidates.” To the organization’s credit, there is a disclaimer at the bottom of the page noting that the NRCC paid for the site.

Late last month, The New York Times disclosed another deception-based scheme designed to influence voters. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the big lobbying and PR group for health insurers, secretly funneled $1.593 million to its longtime ally, the National Federation of Independent Business, to pay for a TV ad targeting Democratic senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. The ad blames Pryor for making it harder for small businesses to make a profit as a result of his vote for “Obamacare.”

The ad didn’t mention that the funds to pay for it came from health insurers or that the spot was part of a continuing effort by AHIP to get Congress to eliminate a fee that was imposed on insurers to help offset the cost of expanding coverage to the uninsured.

The Times connected the dots after reviewing tax records filed by AHIP and the NFIB. An AHIP spokesman acknowledged to the newspaper that his organization had indeed provided the money for the ad.

The relationship between AHIP and the NFIB goes way back. When I worked in the insurance industry, I attended many meetings in Washington with NFIB staff during which we planned a campaign to make sure Congress did not pass a Patient’s Bill of Rights. Insurers worried that a provision of the bill holding insurers more accountable would lead to profit-threatening lawsuits against them. The big for-profit insurance companies contributed the lion’s share of the funding for the campaign, which included the operation of a front group called the Health Benefits Coalition. Not wanting to be too publicly associated with the campaign, we enlisted an NFIB executive as a spokesman for the group. 

Another organization insurers frequently call upon to front for them is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As the National Journal reported in 2012, AHIP funneled more than $100 million to the Chamber to finance it’s campaign to shape the health care reform debate in 2009 and 2010. As with the Times’ disclosure of the AHIP-NFIB alliance, the AHIP-Chamber of Commerce relationship was discovered only after a couple of reporters checked tax filings.

That’s the way the game is played in Washington, where ethical principles that apply elsewhere are blatantly flouted. And where the consequence of getting caught in a lie or deception is rarely more severe than a bad PR day.